Classical music

Memories of family turmoil and political strife behind prize for top Hong Kong music educator

Yip Wai-hong, a veteran of children’s music education, has struggled through communist upheaval and family division to earn recognition of his composing talent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 11:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 4:37pm

Hong Kong’s top music educator has told of how a prestigious prize set to be bestowed on him this week is recognition of lesser known achievements, but masks memories of family ­estrangement and political ­turmoil.

Yip Wai-hong, a veteran of children’s music education with junior orchestras and choruses, will receive this year’s Hall of Fame Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong on Tuesday night.

“The award will highlight my achievements as a composer,” Yip said. “I have composed more than 200 works, and composition is what I studied, against my father’s will, in the early 1950s.”

Instead of following his ­family’s advice by pursuing civil engineering, Yip changed his university major to music at the former Yenching University in Beijing, which in 1952 was incorporated into ­Peking University.

“I was transferred to the Central Conservatory of Music in Tianjin and studied under a Soviet professor who took delight in my graduation work, a cello concerto, and recommended me for training in Moscow,” he said.

But that opportunity in Russia eventually went to a lesser composer who was a Communist Party member, Yip said – a disappointment that helped spur him to criticise the party in the spring of 1957, when the call came from China’s leadership “to speak out freely and air views fully”.

A few months later, when the backlash came, he would fall victim to the nationwide Anti-Rightist Movement.

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“I was sent to the countryside for hard labour for 18 months. My weight dropped from 164 pounds to 88. When I went home, my wife opened the door and asked: ‘Who are you?’” he said.

For 30 years, Yip did not contact his two older sisters. “Both … were senior generals in the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing. The circumstances between us were well understood,” he said.

Yip has not forgotten the suffering, but now sees it in a positive light.

“I took it as intensive training God put me through, and I am grateful,” he said.

Yip went on to complete a master’s degree and doctorate in America.

Today, as a specialist in children’s music training, Yip has published 11 volumes of songs written for children’s choruses. But orchestral music is his forte, and his 18 months of hard labour in China’s countryside has proved inspirational in this endeavour.

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“I wrote a symphony in four movements during my sabbatical leave in Salt Lake City in late 1989 and I gave it the title World in Chaos,” he said. “I depicted the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in the first movement as no local composer knew better than me what it was like going through a difficult time like that.”

At 86, Yip continues to compose every day for three hours. His latest opus is a violin concerto, and Tuesday’s event will feature the first movement performed by Andrew Ling, principal violist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Life is full of ups and downs. One must learn to let things go and get on with life,” Yip said. “That’s a gift from God.”